For the past couple years, the road ahead for the Southwest Light Rail Transit was uncertain. It faced steeped opposition from leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature who oversaw key transportation committees. Shakopee Rep. Michael Beard, the former Transportation Policy and Finance Committee chairman, once even said he wanted to stop the project "in its tracks."
But all that changed Tuesday night when the DFL took control of both the House and Senate—sweeping in more light rail supporters and handing the reins to a party that’s historically been a bigger backer of public transit.
“The bottom line is we didn’t get anywhere (before), so it’s pretty significant to us,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, chairwoman of the Southwest Corridor Project Advisory Committee.
A handful of Edina races offered a clear example of the contrast. In the Senate District 49 race, DFL challenger Melisa Franzen, who prominently touted her support for Southwest LRT in campaign mailers, defeated Republican State Rep. Keith Downey, who did not support the project.
Meanwhile, the House District 49A race was won by DFLer Ron Erhardt—a state representative until 2008, who helped draft a bill that allowed for a county transit tax. His opponent, Republican Bill Glahn, was more skeptical. The same split held for the District 49B race, where DFL candidate Paul Rosenthal also won.
Wins like those aren’t just significant for the individual legislators they bring into office; they’ll also place Southwest LRT supporters on key committees. Dorfman expects Minneapolis Rep. Frank Hornstein and Minneapolis Sen. D. Scott Dibble—both light rail fans—to take over transportation committees.
That’ll be key because the state has so far been the most difficult place for Southwest LRT to find funding. It’s contributed the least of any local funding source—just $7 million total, $5 million in 2009 and $2 million in 2012 after the Legislature rejected a $25 million bonding request. It’s supposed to eventually put up $125 million for the $1.25 billion project.
“It’s really been bottled up for the past few years because the people running the committees in the House and Senate were skeptics of light rail in general and Southwest in particular,” said Rep. Steve Simon, who represents Hopkins and St. Louis Park.
Now, Simon expects Southwest funding to start moving forward again.
Sen. Ron Latz—whose district includes Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Golden Valley—said the focus will be on providing “adequate funding”—with the first priority being to define adequate funding.
“I wouldn’t say anything is a lock,” he said. “We still have a structural deficit to deal with.”
Yet Southwest supporters have much more reason to be optimistic than they’ve had in a long time, and Dorfman expects the project to start picking up steam.
“We feel like the planning is moving forward, the funding is beginning to be cobbled together and the politics is starting to move forward,” she said. “There’s a lot happening around Southwest now where things are really lining up to move it forward after delays over the past few years.”